Date: 28/10/2020
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Tapping into our credulity

Christina Odone writes about the bottled water myth that so many of us appear to have swallowed:

I DID IT, TOO. I carried a sleek plastic bottle of water to the gym, sat a fat glass bottle beside my computer at work and asked “still or sparkling” of my dinner-party guests. Yes, I was a bottled water fanatic.

But no more. The Earth Policy Institute, an American independent environmental research organisation, has just published a report that paints a galling picture of a giant con being perpetrated upon a thirsty and gullible people. Every time we buy a bottle of water — carbonated or still, in plastic or glass — we are enriching people and businesses that not only rip us off, but also mock us as sentimentalist, innumerate and scientifically illiterate.

For years the sales strategy of the large mineral water conglomerates has tapped into our bucolic myths of sparkling clear streams and pure Alpine lakes. It didn’t matter that almost 40 per cent of bottled water began its life as tap water from a municipal source; we were led to believe that a sip of this stuff and our urban, stressed-out rat race of a life would be instantly detoxed. After a glass or two, we would be as close to Nature as a Rousseau hero in his birthday suit, as alive with pleasure as Julie Andrews trilling and twirling in those hills. We were assured that there was a genie in every bottle, and our wish for a long and healthy life was its command.

While luring us with the promise of purity and regeneration, the makers of bottled water sneered at our inability to play the numbers game. It was clear from their booming business that we, the consumers, could not work out that by selling a bottle of water for £1 that had cost them pennies at source, the producers were raking in 1,000 per cent profit. We had obviously not figured out that the £57 billion spent each year on bottled water was nearly seven times the sum that is invested in providing safe drinking water in developing countries.

Worst of all, the producers of bottled water sneered at our scientific ignorance. They figured that we could not possibly know that a plastic bottle of water takes 1,000 years to biodegrade; or that distributing 154 billion litres a year by train, truck and boat would incur huge costs in terms of energy and pollution.

When it came to water, we were mugs. But not a drop more will pass my lips. Turn on that tap.

I couldn't agree more when it comes to still water. Fashionable restaurants such as London's Nobu charge £5 for a small bottle, which is outrageous. However, sparkling water is rather different. The bubbles do add value, although not as much as the price of the bottle. And sparkling water is preferable to ghastly soft drinks like coke or orange juice if you are ever in the unpleasant position of not being able to drink wine. More usefully, it is a good palate cleanser between glasses of different wine. But I have never bought a bottle of still water in a restaurant, and this will not change.